Zeresenay Mehari’s directorial debut Difret (2014) is a captivating story about a revolutionary period of feminism in Ethiopia as the battle between traditional sacraments and modern ideologies climax over a murder trial and a young girl’s right to self defence and freedom to choose. Based on a true story, tensions become calamitous in Ethiopia when a 14-year-old girl, Hirut (Tizita Hagere), murders the man who abducted and raped her. Not only is such abduction widely accepted as a grand romantic gesture, but it’s openly encouraged for considerably older men. According to tradition, the woman must accept being taken, held with little food and water, and be prepared for her future husband to rape her.
When Hirut disobeys this unspoken law, and kills her abductor, she is arrested. While she remains the centre of the case, the focal point of the movie falls on her powerfully striking defence lawyer Meaza (Meron Getnet). Meaza represents the modern Western ideology gusting through the country. She’s an educated, unmarried woman who spends the majority of her time fighting for the rights of abused women under a law which unjustly refuses to acknowledge them as equals to their male relatives. The film does an excellent job of juxtaposing modern society, often shown by the city landscape and the atavistic rituals of rural townships, as seen when the film returns to the Hirut’s own village. Like many a biopic before this one, Meaza’s strained struggle is littered with hardships and emotional turbulence.
She endlessly advocates for the release and freedom of Hirut and Getnet’s performance is enthralling; the conviction she brings to the role is dazzling. She steals scenes from everyone she shares them with and her moments with Hagere are gut-wrenching as these two women find solace in the comfort that their societally decided stubbornness makes them unattractive to most men in their country. Although Difret does an adequate job of talking about a subject matter largely unnoticed, the film has issues with transitioning scenes and pacing. Mehari strays away from violent overtones, instead choosing to focus the film on the monumental trial that shook the country to its core, but in doing so loses some of the significance of what Meaza was fighting for.
Hirut’s abduction happens in a millisecond and there isn’t much emphasis on the diabolical act. The film stuggles with this facet of its pacing throughout; scenes integral to the emotional fraught ambiance are frequently glanced over to make room for monotonous trial developments. When Mehari does try to recover this by returning, during the trail, to the captivating horror Hirut faces, the transitions feel phony and amateurish. Luckily, the story and actors are able to carry Difret excellently. The awkwardness of the overall production evaporates whenever Getnet and Hagere deliver their haunting performances and it makes for a strong debut from a director with important stories to share who’s just starting to make her mark on the industry.
Julia Alexander | @loudmouthjulia